Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Composition and dating: As with Beowulf, we know little of the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poem was discovered bound in a volume with three other highly moral and religious poems, Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness), and Patience, and most scholars believe these poems and Gawain are the work of the same author, usually called "the Pearl Poet." It seems natural to assume that the author was a cleric, though there is no compelling evidence that prevents him from being an educated and religious layman. In any case, the author had extensive familiarity with both the bible and French secular romances. We do not know precisely when the poem was written, but the Gawain poet was almost certainly a contemporary of Chaucer's, and the poem is conventionally dated in the latter half of the 14th century, sometime around 1375.

The French influence: In the 11th century England was invaded and conquered by Normans, a Germanic people occupying much of northern France. Following their victory over the Anglo-Saxon English in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Norman ruling class in England infused much of their own French language and culture into medieval England. French would be the language of choice for the upper classes in England for several centuries. More to the point regarding Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it was from France and the ruling French upper class in England that the legends of the Celtic English King Arthur would arise and become so popular, promulgated mainly through chivalric or medieval romances, verse tales of courtly or knightly adventures that displaced the epic as the most popular form of poetic narrative from the late 11th century up to the time Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written. It is notable that the word "romance" originally denoted a work written in the French language (Abrams 24). The Gawain poem we have combines two different earlier French romances: the challenge Gawain accepts from the Green Knight in parts 1, 2, and 4 of the poem and his adventures with the mistress of the castle in part 3.

The chivalric romance: Whereas Anglo-Saxon poetry such as Beowulf celebrates the heroic code of the Germanic tribal past, medieval romances celebrate the courtly life of manners and chivalry. (Note the similarities in the words "chivalry," "cheval," meaning "horse" in French, and "chevalier" French for "knight.") The typical chivalric romance describes the adventures of knights seeking to rescue fellow knights from danger or to prove their worthiness to a beautiful and high-born lady, often through quests or tournaments or battles with dragons, monsters, etc. The chivalric romance typically "stresses the chivalric ideals of courage, honor, mercifulness to an opponent, and exquisite and elaborate manners; and it delights in wonders and marvels" including "magic, spells, and enchantments" (Abrams 24).

Arthurian legend: It is unknown whether an actual King Arthur existed in England, and it is certain that if he did, he was no true king of any large portion of England as the legends often suggest. The legend of Arthur is Celtic in origin, thought to have been established by the Britons conquered by the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Britons apparently told themselves stories of their own hero, a king so mighty that before the Anglo-Saxon invasion he had threatened to overtake Rome itself (David et al 12). As Arthurian legend evolved, Lancelot became the most famous and "noble" of the Knights of the Round Table, and it is his love affair with Arthur's queen Guinevere that leads to the undoing of the kingdom. Early on in the tradition of Arthurian romance, however, Sir Gawain was often depicted as the "best" knight, the most courageous, accomplished, chaste, and valiant of Arthur's knights.

The purpose? Scholars have often been at odds over what the thematic or moral "message" of this poem might be, or even over whether or not the poem has any serious intent beyond pure entertainment. Some scholars have detected Christian religious themes in Gawain's tale; some think it hearkens back to pre-Christian pagan emphasis on fertility rituals and myths of the four seasons; some have seen it as being "quite in the spirit of French romance, told for its own sake" (Baugh 236). There are other possibilities as well.

Reading points: As you read, consider or be on the lookout for the following:

The "code" of courtly, knightly virtues and values: courtesy, civility, bravery, gallantry, honor, character, modesty, adventurousness, derring-do, et al.

Themes on "truth" in the different possible senses of the word, as in "honesty" and "faithfulness" or "fidelity," among others.

The poem's depiction of women: an anti-feminist perspective?

Religious and/or moral implications in the lesson Gawain learns in the end. Evaluate his relative success in the testing of his character.

Similarities and differences with Beowulf.

Works Cited (and consulted)